Following up on my previous posts:
The Verdict: Additional Thoughts (and Concerns) About the Low Bar Pass Rates in California and Elsewhere in 2014, by Vikram David Amar (UC-Davis):
About a month ago I wrote an essay for this website commenting on the drop in bar passage rates in many states in the fall of 2014. I focused on the large national decrease in scores that test takers received on the so-called Multistate Bar Exam (MBE), a 190-question multiple-choice exam that accounts for much of the entire bar exam in most states, and on remarks made by Erica Moeser, who heads the organization that makes and scores the MBE (the National Committee of Bar Examiners or NCBE), to the effect that this year’s takers were “less able.” Much has happened since I wrote that essay: on November 25, about 80 law deans (I should note my dean at UC Davis was not among them) joined in a letter to Ms. Moeser requesting that “a thorough investigation of the administration and scoring of the July bar exam” be conducted, and that “the methodology and results of the investigation . . . be made fully transparent to all law school deans and state bar examiners” so that there might be “independent expert review” of the exam’s “integrity and fairness”; on December 18, Ms. Moeser responded with a letter, and an attached essay from NCBE’s quarterly magazine that provided additional analysis and data; and other states, including the largest state, California, have in recent weeks released details on bar passage within their jurisdictions. In the space below, I analyze some of these recent developments, with specific reference to what likely accounts for the large drop in MBE performance (and thus bar pass rates in many states) this year. ...
Overall, it was a tough year for bar passage in the Golden State. One out of every three first-time takers from ABA-approved schools throughout the country failed the California bar exam. Among the particularly depressing facts is that first-time African American takers from ABA-approved law schools had a pass rate of only 42%. When we look at first-time takers from ABA-approved schools located in California (who often do better than takers from ABA-approved schools in other states), Latina/o takers suffered a big decline this year; whereas White and Asian first-time California ABA-school takers saw their pass rates drop about 5% as compared to 2013, Latina/o takers saw their pass rate drop over 10%, to just 59.5%. At least four well-established California schools—UC Hastings, University of San Francisco, Santa Clara and Southwestern—experienced first-time pass rates (of 68%, 61%, 60% and 54%, respectively) that were the lowest in 18 or more years. (The data I had went back only to 1997, so this year’s performance might well be the worst in more than 20 years for these schools.)
And there does seem to be a correlation between declines at the 25th percentile LSAT score and lower bar pass rates among the California schools this year. Eleven schools saw their 25th percentile LSAT score drop between the class that entered in 2010 and the class that entered in 2011, and 9 of these schools saw their bar pass rates also drop. (One of the schools that saw its 25th percentile LSAT score go down but whose bar pass rate did not decline was USC, and its 25th percentile LSAT remained quite high—above 160—for the class entering in 2011.) The California school that saw the sharpest drop at the 25th percentile LSAT score in fall of 2011, UC Hastings, suffered, as I noted above, its worst bar pass rate in decades. And among the three schools in California whose 25th percentile LSAT scores increased in fall 2011 compared to the year before, two of those schools (UC Davis and UC Berkeley—both of whose 25th percentile LSATs were above 160 in 2011) saw their bar pass rates increase a bit (UC Davis from 85% in 2013 to 86% in 2014, and UC Berkeley from 85% in 2013 to 88% this year.) Only four schools statewide saw bar pass rates increase at all, and Berkeley’s increase of 3% was the largest.
Obviously, as mentioned earlier, much more than a school’s 25th percentile or median LSAT score goes into its bar pass rate, and year-to-year variations in bar passage are unavoidable at each school, even if student academic quality remains constantly high. There is likely no single factor that explains all of this year’s bar performance decline. But Ms. Moeser’s suggestion that we delve deeply into the admissions and academic support functions of law schools if we want to raise pass rates (as long as we have to live with a questionable device like the bar exam) is well worth heeding. And incoming admissions numbers do not bode well for bar pass rates for the next few years. In California, for example, the four schools I mentioned whose bar pass rates are at twenty-first century lows (UC Hastings, University of San Francisco, Santa Clara, and Southwestern) all have seen significant slippage at the 25th percentile in the last three years since the fall of 2011. And nationally, the number of schools whose 25th percentile LSAT score is below the national median score (i.e., 151 or below) grew again in the fall of 2012 (from 71 to 80), and yet again in the fall of 2013 (from 80 to 90), and likely grew again in 2014. Unless bar examiners across the country lower the threshold for passage (which in most states they insist they never do), or unless law schools find some new, highly effective academic success tools to help students do better on the bar—and find them very quickly—I fear that the difficult news about bar pass rates we experienced this fall will recur each year for the foreseeable future.